In My Own Words: “We lost a year” by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“We lost a year.” As the first anniversary of the pandemic hitting the U.S. approaches, some people are mourning what they see as a lost year. I question the value of looking at the past year through that lense. Should we not instead celebrate our resilience? Aren’t our lives more than career advancement, schooling, travels, etc. Is surviving a year of a pandemic – physically and/or mentally – not enough, not something of which we should be proud? Would people talk the same way if the U.S. was at war, or facing major ecological disasters – earthquakes, fires and floods – that completely disrupted their lives? 

Please note that I am not saying that people don’t have a right to complain about all that has not occurred during the pandemic. Everyone needs to feel that sorrow and mourn the family, friends and events that they’ve missed. My reaction to the comment of a “lost year” doesn’t come from the current pandemic, though. It’s far more personal than that because I spent almost 20 years of my life that would be counted as “lost” on the scale these people measure.
What happened during those years? That time could be called the “didn’t years”: didn’t support myself, didn’t get a degree, didn’t hold a full time job, didn’t get married, didn’t have children – didn’t do all the things and more that people are saying were put on hold for one single year. One year? I had almost 20 of them caused by health problems beyond my control.

This makes me sound bitter and I don’t like sounding or feeling that way. That’s why I can’t read articles about our lost year. I need to look forward, to feel gratitude for what I have and all I’ve managed to gain. There was no miraculous cure, just years of work trying to get healthy. And I’m the lucky one: I know people who will never climb out of that hole – who are going to spend the rest of their lives not knowing when they get up in the morning if they will be able to accomplish anything that day. And there is the fear in the back of my mind that my problems will return. I don’t dwell on it, but it’s always there.

As a result of this, I try to practice what might be called radical gratitude – that is being grateful for things we normally take for granted. My father used to say to me something that I hated at the time, but which I now say to myself when things go wrong: “No one is shooting at you.” That’s not something many people across the world – and that includes too many in the U.S. – can take for granted. I have heat, light, food on the table and enough disposable income to make my life more than comfortable. I am better off than the vast majority of people. And the one thing I for which I am especially grateful for? I had wonderful parents who believed in me and tried everything they could to help me get healthy. Not everyone with health problems is as lucky.

“We lost a year.” No, we didn’t lose a year. We lived through this past year as best we could – some experiencing great joy and others great sorrow. We plugged through the days, worrying about work or worrying that we didn’t have work, fearing for our own health and frightened for the health of our loved ones. But what we need to recognize is that we lived every day – lived our lives with laughter, with tears, with despair and with hope. That’s why this year counts and that’s something we should never forget.